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Oakley Jawbone sunglasses

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Watching this year’s Tour De France, I noticed that roughly half of my cycling heros were wearing Oakley’s Jawbone sports glasses. When I first saw George Hincappie wearing them, I thought they were over-styled and ugly. But then I wondered if there was a method behind the aggressive looks. I decided to get a pair and test them out myself.

Going into this review, I admit that I halfway wanted to dislike these shades. The Jawbones are easily recognizable for their bold, intimidating looks — neither characteristic really suiting my tastes. And the $200 entry fee (some versions as high as $260) seemed steep. They were going to have to be pretty special to get a thumbs-up at that price.

Oakley Jawbone with vented lenses

The Jawbone is part of Oakley’s Sport product line — high-performance sunglasses made for cycling and other sports. I tested them across a range of activities, including on the bike and feet. In a recent adventure race, they stayed firmly on my face through multiple disciplines, including running, biking, swimming, paddling, and climbing (and falling). The lightweight frames held the crisp lenses close and comfortable to the face.

Unique to a few Oakley models is the nose piece that swings up allowing the “jaw” to swing down, thus releasing the lens. The procedure, unlike a lot of removable lens glasses, does not require that you torque on the lens to remove it. It simply and easily slides out for replacement. And since you can grab it by the edges, there are no more dirty, oily fingerprints on the lenses. Tiny pads on the inside of the frame keep lenses lightly suspended. This is because a tight fit might compress the lens and cause unwanted distortion.

Another unique aesthetic touch of the Jawbone is its extra lip on the frame material beneath the lens. My burning question for Oakley designers was whether this was purely aesthetic or did it perform a function. It was explained to me as a sort of “spoiler” that directs air, water and dust up and away from the eye. The effectiveness of this design depends to some extent on the differing shapes of athletes’ faces. In my testing, I swear there seemed to be less air moving over my eyes. For my mug, the ram-air styling seemed to actually work.

Jawbone in black

At the Interbike trade show last month, I met with the Oakley staff to see a demonstration of lens durability. In a booth at the Sands Convention Center in Las Vegas, an Oakley worker fired ball bearings at over 100mph and dropped 1.1lb weights on the lenses. They were literally unscathed. I was impressed, and it was apparent that some thorough — and fun! — quality assurance and testing must go into each lens in-house at Oakley’s California headquarters.

Any warts on this champion shade? While they might look killer on the face of a kitted-up racer, they don’t pair quite as well with jeans and a t-shirt. Sporting these bad boys is like wearing cleats out to dinner — a little lame. But to be fair, the same is true for most high-performance shades. Another option: An Oakley model with similar features, yet more toned down style-wise, is the Split Jacket.

Oakley Split Jacket Shade

For 2011, Oakley will offer customizable Jawbone glasses. Customers can choose from over a dozen frame, “jaw” and thru-bolt colors. You can get custom etching on the lenses, too. This service is available to new purchases or Jawbones you may already own. So you can match them to your team kit, your bike, or just create a combo you think looks killer.

Beyond looks, after several months of use, I am confident that the Jawbones are some of the best-performing, best-designed glasses on the market. If “understated” is your style, the Jawbones are not for you. And the $200+ price tag positions the shade in the “deep-pockets,” or “seriously committed” categories. But from the shatter-resistant lenses to the clever, articulating “jawbone” frame, these glasses are well suited to ride on the faces of pro athletes or those of us who just want to look and feel like a pro.

—T.C. Worley is an amateur bike racer and a professional photographer based in Minneapolis. His web site is www.studiobluempls.com.

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